Heart-Rate Variability (HRV) and Autonomic Nervous System:
Heart-Rate Variability (HRV), is a measure of the naturally occurring beat-to-beat changes in heart rate. HRV analysis is a powerful, noninvasive measure of autonomic nervous-system function and an indicator of neurocardic fitness. The HeartMath Research Center maintains an extensive HRV normals database, which provides data on the HRVof healthy individuals. HeartMath has published research demonstrating how HRV varies with age and gender and on the use of HRV analyses to assess alterations in autonomic function in conditions such as panic disorder and chronic fatigue.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) (or visceral nervous system) is the part of the peripheral nervous system that acts as a control system, maintaining homeostasis in the body. These activities are generally performed without conscious control. The ANS affects heart rate, digestion, respiration rate, salivation, perspiration, diameter of the pupils, urination and sexual arousal. Whereas most of its actions are involuntary, some, such as breathing, work in tandem with the conscious mind.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) can be divided by subsystems into the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. ANS can also be divided functionally, into its sensory and motor systems. Sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions typically function in opposition to each other. This opposition is better understood as complementary in nature rather than antagonistic. For an analogy, one may think of the sympathetic division as the accelerator and the parasympathetic division as the brake. The sympathetic division typically functions in actions requiring quick responses. The parasympathetic division functions with actions that do not require immediate reaction. The main actions of the parasympathetic nervous system are summarized by the phrase “rest and repose” (in contrast to the “fight-or-flight” of the sympathetic nervous system).
121 Neurofeedback Services & Brainhealth offers Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training: This is achieved by placing a sensor on either your index finger or your earlobe. Once attached you are presented with a computer screen to watch either a video or your heart rate pulses. By using relaxation techniques you can “learn” how to adjust the relationships between HRV, the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems.
Benefit of Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training & HRV Therapy:
Recent studies at the Alliant International University, San Diego, CA, USA have found a significant association between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and low Heart Rate Variability (HRV), as a biomarker of autonomic deregulation. However when you achieve autonomic nervous system balance with HRV training that will enable you to perform more effectively and allows for more normal cognitive processing and stress reduction allowing you to self create improved coping strategies and calmness in your life.
What is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training & HRV Therapy?
Heart Rate Variability training therapy (HRV training) involves the use of biofeedback, computerised equipment, to control heart rate variability (HRV) – the moment-to-moment change in heart rate. The skills learned with the use of the biofeedback can be practiced for relaxation and can be used as a stress management tool during daily activities. However, the program is much more than a simple relaxation technique, you will learn to appreciate yourself, how to substitute stressful responses with more positive emotions.
What is the background of Heart Rate Variability Training?
As discussed above stress stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and relaxation or positive emotions involve the parasympathetic system. Research has shown a direct connection between the sympathetic and parasympathetic activity of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and your physical and mental health. Any prolonged in-balance of the ANS leads to problems such as heart disease, hypertension, depression, and anxiety. Research has shown that there appears to be a two-way communication system between the brain and the nerves surrounding the heart which affects the body’s stress hormones and immune system.
Research has shown that HRV training helps the individual better manage stress and anxiety and improve work satisfaction and performance. In the case of athletes, sports performance can also be improved.
Note: Warnings for HRV training?
There are no specific warning against HRV training, however if you are actively suicidal or psychotic you may require a more intensive level of psychiatric care. A Brainhealth clinical assessment will advise you if HRV training is for you.
HRV patterns associated with a stress response may be a risk factor for complications in cardiac arrhythmia’s (irregular heartbeat) patients and further research is being conducted into the role of HRV training for these patients.
The Science behind Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training:
The Heart–Brain Connection:
Most of us believe that the heart is constantly responding to “requests” sent by the brain in the form of nerve signals. However, what is not as commonly known is that the heart actually sends signals to the brain that have a significant effect on brain function. For example, the heart effects the brain when we process emotions, attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving.
Not only does the heart respond to the brain the brain continuously responds to the heart.
Scientists at the Institute of HeartMath have demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on higher mental and emotional functions. When we are under stress or experiencing negative emotions, the heart rhythm pattern becomes erratic and disordered and the corresponding pattern of nerve signals travelling from the heart to the brain blocks higher mental functions.
The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes that actually serves to reinforce the negative emotional experience of stress. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions and as a result you may act impulsively and unwisely.
When we feel good, the heart’s input to the brain is more ordered and stable which improves higher mental function and hence reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability. This means that by learning to generate heart rhythm coherence, we learn to sustain positive emotions, which not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel, perform and make decisions.
Your Heart’s Changing Rhythm:
The heart at rest was once thought to operate much like a metronome, faithfully beating out a regular, steady rhythm. However rather than being monotonously regular, the rhythm of a healthy heart – even under resting conditions is actually surprisingly irregular, with the interval between consecutive heartbeats constantly changing. This naturally occurring beat-to-beat variation in heart rate is called heart rate variability (HRV) and is a measure of the beat-to-beat changes in heart rate.
The normal variability in heart rate is due to the joint action of the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – the part of the nervous system that regulates most of the body’s internal functions. The sympathetic nerves act to speed up heart rate, while the parasympathetic (vagus) nerves slow it down. The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS constantly interact to maintain cardiovascular activity in its optimal range and to allow appropriate reactions to changing external and internal conditions. Analysis of HRV therefore gives us a dynamic window into the function and balance of the autonomic nervous system.
The moment-to-moment variations in heart rate are generally overlooked when average heart rate is measured: for example, when your doctor takes your pulse over a certain period of time and calculates that your heart is beating at, say, 85 beats per minute. However using state-of-the-art Brainhealth emWave technology you can observe your heart’s changing rhythms in real time. Using your pulse data, it provides a picture of your HRV – plotting the natural increases and decreases that occur in your heart rate on a continual basis.
Why is Heart Rate Variability Important?
Doctors and scientists consider HRV to be an important indicator of health and fitness. It acts as a marker of our physiological resilience and behavioural flexibility and reflects our ability to adapt effectively to stress and environmental demands.
HRV is also a marker of biological aging. Our heart rate variability is greatest when we are young, and as we age the range of variation in our resting heart rate becomes smaller. Although the age-related decline in HRV is a natural process, having abnormally low HRV for one’s age group is associated with increased risk of future health problems and premature mortality. Low HRV is also observed in individuals with a wide range of diseases and disorders. By reducing stress-induced wear and tear on the nervous system and facilitating the body’s natural regenerative processes, regular practice of cardiac coherence-building techniques can help restore HRV to healthy values.
Heart Rhythm Patterns and Emotions:
Many factors affect the activity of the ANS, and therefore influence HRV. These include our breathing patterns, physical exercise, and even our thoughts. Research at the Institute of HeartMath has shown that one of the most powerful factors that affect our heart’s changing rhythm is our feelings and emotions.
When our varying heart rate is plotted over time, the overall shape of the waveform produced is called the heart rhythm pattern. The emWave PC, allows you to see your heart rhythm pattern in real time. Research has found that the emotions we experience directly affect our heart rhythm pattern which in turn, tells us much about how our body is functioning.
In general, emotional stress and other emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety gives rise to heart rhythm patterns that are irregular and erratic: the HRV waveform looks like a series of uneven or jagged peaks. (see graph).
Scientists call this an incoherent heart rhythm pattern which indicates that the signals produced by the two branches of the ANS are out of sync with each other. This is like driving a car with one foot on the accelerator (the sympathetic nervous system) and the other on the brake (the parasympathetic nervous system) at the same time – this conflict between go and stop or flight and digest creates a bumpy ride and burns more fuel. Likewise, the incoherent heart rhythm patterns associated with stressful emotions can cause our body to operate inefficiently, ineffective digestion and repair, deplete our energy, and produce extra wear and tear on our whole system. This is especially true if stress and negative emotions are prolonged or experienced often.
In contrast, positive emotions send a very different signal throughout our body. When we experience uplifting emotions such as appreciation, joy, care, and love; our heart rhythm pattern becomes highly ordered, looking like a smooth, harmonious wave (see graph). This is called a coherent heart rhythm pattern and indicates that the activity in the two branches of the ANS is synchronized and the body’s systems are operating with increased efficiency and harmony. It’s no wonder that positive emotions feel so good – they actually help our body’s systems synchronize and work better.
Heart rhythm patterns during different emotional states:
These graphs show examples of real-time heart rate variability patterns (heart rhythms) recorded from individuals experiencing different emotions. The incoherent heart rhythm pattern shown in the top graph, characterized by its irregular, jagged waveform, is typical of stress and negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety. The bottom graph shows an example of the coherent heart rhythm pattern that is typically observed when an individual is experiencing a sustained positive emotion. The coherent pattern is characterized by its regular, sine-wave-like waveform.
Coherence - A State of Optimal Function:
The Institute of HeartMath’s research has shown that generating sustained positive emotions facilitates a body-wide shift to a specific, scientifically measurable state. This state is termed psycho physiological coherence, and is a state of optimal function characterised by increased order and harmony in both our psychological (mental and emotional) and physiological (bodily) processes i.e. where the mind and body are working in a state of optimal function. Research shows that when we activate this state, our physiological systems function more efficiently, we experience greater emotional stability, and we also have increased mental clarity and improved cognitive function. Simply stated, our body and brain work better, we feel better, and we perform better.
Physiologically, the coherence state is marked by the development of a smooth, sine-wave-like pattern in the heart rate variability trace. This characteristic pattern, called heart rhythm coherence, is the primary indicator of the psycho physiological coherence state, and is what the emWave PC measures and quantifies. A number of important physiological changes occur during coherence. The two branches of the ANS synchronize with one another, and there is an overall shift in autonomic balance toward increased parasympathetic activity leading to synchronization between the activity of the heart and brain.
Note: Coherence Is Not Just Relaxation! It is increased harmony and synchronization in the nervous system and heart–brain connection:
It is important to note that the state of coherence is both psychologically and physiologically distinct from the state achieved through most relaxation techniques. At the physiological level, relaxation is characterized by an overall reduction in autonomic outflow (resulting in lower HRV) and a shift in ANS balance towards increased parasympathetic activity. Coherence is associated with a relative increase in parasympathetic activity, thus encompassing a key element of the relaxation response, but is physiologically different from relaxation in that the system oscillates at its natural resonant frequency and there is increased harmony and synchronization in the nervous system and heart–brain connection.
There are fundamental physiological differences between relaxation and coherence, but the psychological characteristics of these states are also quite different. Relaxation is a low-energy state in which the individual rests both the body and mind, typically disengaging from cognitive and emotional processes.
In contrast, coherence generally involves the active engagement of positive emotions. Psychologically, coherence is experienced as a calm, balanced, yet energised and responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making, as well as physical activity and coordination.
The Role of Breathing:
Another important distinction involves understanding the role of breathing, or the science of breath, in the generation of coherence and its relationship to HRV training. Breathing patterns modulate the heart’s rhythm, it is possible to generate a coherent heart rhythm simply by breathing slowly and regularly at a 10-second rhythm (5 seconds on the in-breath and 5 seconds on the out-breath). Breathing rhythmically in this fashion can be a useful intervention to shift out of stressful emotional state and into increased coherence. However, this type of cognitively-directed paced breathing can require considerable mental effort and is difficult for some people to maintain.
While the techniques used in HRV training incorporates a breathing element, paced breathing is not the primary focus and the techniques used should therefore not be thought of simply as a breathing exercise. Unlike commonly practised breathing techniques HRV training focuses on the intentional generation of a heartfelt positive emotional state. This emotional shift is a key element of HRV training effectiveness. Positive emotions appear to excite the system at its natural resonant frequency and thus enable coherence to emerge and to be maintained naturally, without conscious mental focus on one’s breathing rhythm.
This is because input generated by the heart’s rhythmic activity is actually one of the main factors that affect our breathing rate and patterns. When the heart’s rhythm shifts into coherence as a result of a positive emotional shift, our breathing rhythm automatically synchronizes with the heart, thereby reinforcing and stabilising the shift to system-wide coherence.
Additionally, the positive emotional focus of HRV training confers a much wider range of benefits than those typically achieved through breathing alone. These include deeper perceptual and emotional changes, increased access to intuition and creativity, cognitive and performance improvements, and favourable changes in hormonal balance.
With HRV training you will learn how to self-activate and eventually sustain a positive emotion. A useful training aid to help you achieve and maintain coherence when you start this therapy is to practice heart-focused breathing at a 10-second rhythm. Once you grow accustomed to generating coherence through rhythmic breathing and become familiar with how this state feels, you can then begin to practice breathing a positive feeling or attitude through the heart area in order to enhance your experience. Eventually, with continual practice, most people become able to shift into coherence just by activating a positive emotion.
The Heart Own Mind?
Many of the changes in bodily function that occur during the coherence state revolve around changes in the heart’s pattern of activity. The heart has been defined as only that of pumping blood. Historically, in almost every culture of the world, the heart was given a far more multifaceted role in the human system, being regarded as a source of wisdom, spiritual insight, thought, and emotion.
However, recent scientific research has begun to provide evidence that many of these beliefs about the heart may well be more than simply metaphorical.
These developments have led science once again to revise and expand its understanding of the heart and its role.
The heart possesses its own intrinsic nervous system, a network of nerves so functionally sophisticated containing over 40,000 neurons, this gives the heart the ability to sense independently, process information, make decisions, and even to demonstrate a type of learning and memory. The heart will beat independently of any nervous or hormonal influences.
The spontaneous rhythm of the heart is called intrinsic automaticity and can be altered by nervous impulses or by circulatory substances, like adrenaline.
Research has shown that the heart is a hormonal gland, manufacturing and secreting numerous hormones and neurotransmitters that profoundly affect brain and body function. Among the hormones the heart produces is oxytocin – well known as the “love” or “bonding hormone.” Science has only begun to understand the effects of the electromagnetic fields produced by the heart, but there is evidence that the information contained in the heart’s powerful field may play a vital synchronizing role in the human body.
Research has also shown that the heart is a key component of the emotional system. Scientists now understand that the heart not only responds to emotion, but that the signals generated by its rhythmic activity actually play a major part in determining the quality of our emotional experience from moment to moment. The heart’s extensive communication network with the brain profoundly impact perception and cognitive function.